There’s a sculpture of a carp with a pearl in its mouth, another of the Buddha surrounded by burned-down incense sticks in clay pots. Over it all, a high arching roof with a stained glass window filtering sunlight. Deuce is snapping pictures. I’m studying the artwork in the roof. I spin on the soles of my tennis shoes and realize I’m looking at a green-scaled dragon, blasting fire from its open mouth at a tiger sinking its claws into the dragon to keep it from flying off on flapping wings. I look closer and see the dragon is actually in flight over a snow-capped mountain, but the tiger hangs on, its claws dug in.
“Amazing,” I say.
“Fuckin’ A,” O’Don whispers as we bump into each other.
Outside, a cloud crosses before the sun and the streaks of color vanish.
“Check it out,” Deuce says.
There’s a large black and white photo on an easel. In the photo we see a pond and in the clear water there are large carp swimming under lily pads. The next picture shows an old man in a simple white robe tending to a delicate Bonsai. Another shows two sumo wrestlers facing each other with their hands on their knees.
A marquee says this is an exhibit by a renowned Japanese photographer. Metal poles with felt ropes guide us to the entrance.
We wander through checking out the black and white pictures, mounted on cardboard, hung on partitions. They depict rural life in Japan years ago. We wander through a maze leading us deeper into the exhibit. The pictures are amazing. Laborers in a rice paddy. People in simple garb shopping at an open air market. A Samurai with a hand on the hilt of his sword. A temple beside a tranquil pond. People pulling nets of fish onto the beach.
My wanderlust stirs.
I want to hop on a bus and go up along the coast or into the mountains. The Navy, though, doesn’t give us enough time off to get past the waterfront bars, and even if we had more time, we don’t have any way to make travel plans before we arrive. Here in Sasebo, it’s the same as every other port—take a cab into town, walk around, go to a bar, get shitfaced.
We drift apart as we meander through the photos.
I round a turn and it hits me. The people who set this up tricked us, they lured us in with beautiful pictures, but now I’m deep in the middle of the maze and they’ve got me, like a bug stuck in a spider’s web. There’s a photo of a Zen garden outside an ancient pagoda. A path through the garden leads my eye into a grove of dense evergreens. This scene in this photo shows the most peaceful and idyllic place I’ve ever seen. In the photo beside this one, taken after the bomb went off, the pagoda is a toppled pile of smoking rubble. The evergreens torched to blackened trunks, their branches incinerated. Another photo shows rows of school children in uniforms. Boy girl, boy girl. The next picture, a doctor in a dirty lab coat doing something painful to a child who has been burned severely. Two distressed women hold the screaming child on a cot covered with a gray sheet.
A ball of guilt in my gut. I remind myself that I’m not responsible. I think about my grandfather as a young man, maybe it’s his fault.
The next picture shows a row of women in silk kimonos hiding their heavily made-up faces behind elaborate fans. Their striking eyes draw my attention into a building behind them where big pillows and low tables fill a shady room. Geisha girls. They’re beautiful. I’m intrigued but then I glance at the next picture—several corpses crumpled on cobblestones surrounded by decimated city blocks where all the wooden buildings were vaporized, only black scorch marks on the ground remain.
My guts twist and I don’t know what to think.
This will leaving a mark, I realize.
It’s a lot more powerful than 10,000 people waving signs.
Slowly walking through the maze looking at every picture leads me back to the beginning.
There’s an old man, tranquil and calm, sitting behind a table. I wonder if he’s the photographer. His blank look tells me he was there, he saw the flash in the sky over Hiroshima or maybe Nagasaki.
On his table there’s a card with a quotation: “The new generation can learn from the past and out of this rubble create something good.”
I remember being in the tailor shop and how they greeted us. I bow slightly.
The old photographer nods. Deep wrinkles and brown age spots around his eyes. I think I’ll never look like him. Not Japanese, of course I’ll never be Japanese. What I’m thinking is I’ll never be as old as him. I’m 19. I’ll never get old.
Something inside my chest moves and I wonder if it’s my soul, but it’s probably just the hot sauce and the beers.
I find Deuce and O’Don.
“Those photos were heavy,” I say.
They don’t say anything.
I wonder if they’re both just brutes, living unexamined lives.
“What did you think of those pictures, O’Don?” I ask.
“Old times,” he says.
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This is an excerpt from Making Peace With Japan, A Sea Story by Malcolm Torres. In this story, we follow three young sailors off the USS Enterprise as they come ashore in Sasebo, Japan. They are greeted by thousands of anti-nuclear protesters. After weeks at sea, the sailors only want an exotic meal and a cold beer, but this port visit turns into a reckoning with history after they meet some friendly locals and find themselves Making Peace with Japan. This is one of the short stories in The Sea Adventure Collection. These stories are often free on Amazon, and they can be read in any order.If you enjoy it, please post an honest review. Click here to see this story on Amazon.
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If you enjoyed Making Peace With Japan, you will also like this sea story.
It’s free on all eReaders HERE.
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